Allegations of bugging of the African Union headquarters by tech giant Huawei earlier this year appear to have done little to deter Chinese authorities from placing the firm at the centre of its future relations with Africa.
In January, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that data from the computer system it installed at the African Union headquarters had been “shipped” to Beijing.
The claims were promptly denied by both the Chinese and African Union authorities.
Now Huawei, China’s biggest global tech firm, may continue to play a central role in Sino-Africa relations, where China wants to use infrastructure, science and technology to expand its influence and become a cyber-superpower.
Beijing’s latest initiative is to link together two of its largest foreign policy programmes—The Belt and Road Initiative and the Focus on China-Africa Co-operation—which have both listed science and technology as their core aims.
At the end of the BRI Forum in Beijing, China signed a $175 million public private partnership with Kenya for Huawei to construct a Data Centre and Smart City Facilities project.
The centre will be constructed at the Konza Technology City, and Huawei, funded by the Chinese government, will build the National Cloud Data Centre, Smart ICT Network, Public Safe City and Smart Traffic Solution, and the Government Cloud and Enterprise Service.
Kenya says the project, part of its Vision 2030, could create about 17,000 jobs and pump $900 million into the economy.
With Huawei facing questions about whether its 5G networks could include intrusion and bugging, the Chinese government says there is increasing trust in their tech firms on the continent, and around the world.
“There have been a growing number of countries expressing an unbiased attitude toward Chinese tech companies’ participation in 5G network projects,” Mr Lu Kang, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said.
“This again proves that most countries can make independent policy decisions that serve their interests based on objective facts, and that they remain committed to fostering and safeguarding a fair, just and non-discriminatory market environment.”
Huawei officials argue that though the company has a similar vision to expand in Africa, it is independent of the government and will work within local laws.
In a paper provided to the media, Pang Jimin, the senior vice president of Huawei, said their win-win formula is to first provide a platform for easy sharing of information.
“We need to promote informatisation in Africa, we need to strengthen the construction of digital infrastructure, accelerate the digital upgrading of various industries, and promote knowledge sharing and skills transfer,” he said referring to the use of information to influence decisions on development.
“We will, as always, actively support the Smart Africa initiative and work with all stakeholders to jointly promote connectivity and build a smart Africa.”
Mr Pang said Huawei will be working with governments, private enterprises and industry partners to build “a better all-connected Africa” and make the digital economy a bridge connecting China and Africa.
In Africa, Huawei has tested its 5G network in South Africa. Its platform runs the popular M-Pesa mobile money system in East Africa, and the company’s latest smartphones are penetrating the African market.
Some experts say Huawei’s expansion into Africa follows a known pattern. “China is not alone in this game. Civilisations from the Roman empire to the British relied on technology to spread their influence,” said Peter Kagwanja, CEO of Nairobi’s think-tank Africa Policy Institute.
“The only difference is the Chinese are willing to allow their technology to come to Africa. You have to remember the West had the practice of keeping their technology, and it was expensive.” he told The EastAfrican.
Last year, during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit, President Xi Jinping pledged to invest a further $60 billion in African nations.
The money is to be channelled through grants, interest-free loans and credit lines to private entities in infrastructure, technology, science and agriculture.
Chinese firms like Huawei will be given leading roles in training, transfer of technology and expansion into the continent.
Yun Sun, a fellow for Global Development, Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institute, says it will be upon African countries to make use of the technology.
“Beijing offers Africa the opportunity to speed up its economic development based on the infrastructure China develops, to utilise the technologies, employment, and market opportunities China creates, and to stimulate the desire and competition for growth through a market-based rather than an assistance-based approach,” she said.
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